Two state incumbents face primary challengers

jfrank@newsobserver.comMay 3, 2012 

  • State treasurer candidates Democrats •  Janet Cowell Age, residence: 43, Raleigh Occupation: State treasurer Top issue: “Overall financial stability in a time of great market disruption and volatility at both the state and national level.” • Ron Elmer Age, residence: 45, Cary Occupation: investment consultant, former investment manger with First Citizens Bank, NCM Capital Top issue: “The bad performance of the state pension fund.” Republicans • Frank Roche Age, residence: 49, Cary Occupation: private stock trader, conservative radio show host Top issue: “Our $63 billion in state (and local) debt. Also improving the pension fund returns and performance.” • Steve Royal Age, residence: 61, Thurmond Occupation: self-employed certified public accountant Top issue: State debt and management reforms
    State agriculture commissioner candidates Democrats • Scott Bryant Age, residence: 44, Siler City Occupation: Cattle and grain farmer Top issue: “Bringing more integrity and leadership to the department.” • Walter Smith Age, residence: 58, Yadkinville Occupation: poultry farmer Top issue: Be a strong voice for agriculture, agribusiness and consumer safety Republicans • Bill McManus Age, residence: 49, Davidson Occupation: semi-retired real-estate investor Top issue: The E. Coli outbreak. The sanitation stations were not properly staffed. • Steve Troxler Age, residence: 60, Browns Summit Occupation: N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Top issue: “I am going to continue to make sure we have a top food safety program in North Carolina.”

Two statewide elected officials are facing unusual challenges from within their own party in Tuesday’s primary, forcing them to answer tough questions about their performance well before the November election.

State Treasurer Janet Cowell faces a fellow Democrat who is criticizing the poor performance of the state’s investment fund. And Republican Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler is squaring off against a candidate who is blasting his handling of an E. coli outbreak at last year’s state fair.

The other eight statewide elected officials either aren’t seeking re-election or received a primary election pass.

Cowell’s rival is Ron Elmer, a Cary investor and author, making his first bid for public office. Given the incumbent’s advantages, Elmer admits he will likely lose. But he wants to highlight what he sees as the investment fund’s subpar performance.

With his experience managing state and private pension funds, Elmer said he could make the state nearly a billion dollars by better investing the state’s $72 billion pension fund. He also said he would manage the state’s money within the department, saving millions in investment fees.

Cowell defended the state’s pension fund as one of the top performing in the country, especially given its conservative investment model. She said 40 percent of the fund is managed in-house but state law prevents staffers from maintaining the bulk of the investments. “Anybody in this pension should feel very good ... about the performance of the fund,” she said.

The winner will face the Republican nominee in November – either Frank Roche or Steve Royal – both of whom are echoing Elmer’s criticisms.

Roche is a private stock trader and conservative radio show host who lost the 4th District GOP primary for Congress in 2010.

In addition to improving the state investment fund, Roche said his main concern is mounting government debt. “As an executive in state government, I want to change the rhetoric, say no, find other ways to pay for government,” he said.

Royal, who runs his own accounting firm in Elkin, made an unsuccessful congressional bid in 1990. He is calling for widespread reforms and refuses to take special interest campaign money. He is pledging to only serve one term. “Reform it, fix it and go home,” he said.

Agriculture commissioner

In the Republican race for state agriculture commissioner, Bill McManus is challenging the incumbent by highlighting the E. coli outbreak that sickened 27 people at last year’s state fair. He said the department didn’t do enough to maintain hand-washing stations and prevent the spread of the bacteria, which left at a 2-year-old seriously ill.

But while quick to criticize, the former attorney and accountant is avoiding questions about his past – notably his tenure as a Democratic state lawmaker in Massachusetts in the 1990s and his Democratic bids for the Florida legislature about five years ago. He called himself a Republican at heart but declined to answer further questions.

Troxler, the incumbent, is emphasizing his background as a farmer. State law requires the commissioner to be a farmer, but McManus, a semi-retired real estate investor, rejects the notion. “The person overseeing them should be a CEO,” he said.

Troxler said his campaign is focused on growing the state’s $2.7 billion commodity export and maintaining the food safety program.

The winner will face whoever triumphs in the Democratic primary between Walter Smith and Scott Bryant.

Bryant is a cattle and grain farmer in Chatham County. He is a former law enforcement officer with 20 years experience. His campaign is focused on better marketing the state’s agriculture products, cutting regulations on farmers and advocating for small farms.

Smith, who did not return calls for comment, owns a poultry farm in Yadkin County. He worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and served as mayor of Boonville, his website says. If elected, his website says he would establish a hotline to give people better opportunities to raise issues with the state.

Frank: 919-829-4698

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